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Their Paychecks Versus Ours

Physics graduates are a little better paid than chemists, surveys confirm

by Michael Heylin
May 7, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 19

Chemists and physicists who graduated during the 2003–04 academic year faced a rather unreceptive job market. The number of those who moved directly into the workforce remained depressed in both cases. But the wetlands of graduate school and postdoctoral positions absorbed any potential surplus and kept involuntary unemployment among brand-new chemists and physicists close to their traditional low levels of around 5%. Both sets of graduates were, on the whole, reasonably upbeat about their situation.

These are among the major findings from surveys of new graduates conducted by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and the American Chemical Society. The surveys also indicate that a higher percentage of physics graduates than chemistry graduates continued with their formal education. And of the graduates who entered the workforce directly, physics graduates apparently had a slight salary advantage over chemists.

The two surveys, AIP's Initial Employment Survey and ACS's Starting Salary Survey, are both done annually. There have been efforts to coordinate them to some extent, and they gather similar data. But the way the data are analyzed and presented varies somewhat.

For instance, each ACS survey is of graduates from one particular year. The AIP surveys report rolling two-year average data for combined graduates from the target year and the year earlier. This approach provides a larger data set. It also smoothes out some of the sharp perturbations that can occur in data subsets when results from separate surveys conducted one year apart are compared directly.

There are almost twice as many chemistry as physics graduates. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data for 2003???04, there were 13,058 chemistry graduates and 6,862 physics graduates at the bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D. levels. The NCES data for chemists are for the classic subdisciplines only. They do not include biochemistry or other chemistry-related disciplines.

The ACS survey of 2005 chemistry graduates showed no great changes from 2004. Salaries were a little higher in current dollars, but in constant-dollar terms, they remained below what they had been four or five years earlier at all three degree levels. The employment situation remained quite weak, and the percentage of graduates finding permanent full-time employment was still well down from recent peaks.

The Data. The 2004 data for physics graduates comes from a just-published 20-page report that is available on the AIP website. The April 18, 2005, issue of C&EN, page 51, carried a preliminary report on 2004 chemistry graduates. Initial data on 2005 graduates are in the Aug. 7, 2006, issue, page 57.

Patrick J. Mulvey and Casey Langer Tesfaye of the AIP Statistical Research Center are responsible for the survey of physicists, and Janel Kasper-Wolfe of the ACS Department of Member Research & Technology handles the survey of chemists.

The tasks of locating and getting responses from new graduates, most of whom are on the move to other schools or new jobs, are challenging in both surveys.

ACS seeks data as of early October after the end of each academic year. The response rate to the 2004 ACS survey was 35% of the chemists contacted, or about 25% of all chemistry graduates that year.

AIP gathers data as of early February following graduation and collects it throughout the winter. AIP received combined 2003-04 data from 32% of the bachelor's classes, 47% of master's, and 65% of the Ph.D. classes. AIP includes some data supplied by advisers of nonresponding graduates. ACS uses data from graduates only.

Women have made considerably deeper penetration into chemistry than physics. Half of the bachelor's graduates to whom the ACS 2004 survey questionnaire was sent were women, as were 48% of the master's and 33% of the Ph.D. graduates. For physics graduates, these breakouts were 22%, 22%, and 17%, respectively.

Women were more responsive than men to the 2004 ACS survey. This anomaly had no major impact on the results in general, as most of the parameters measured were gender-neutral. In 2005, however, ACS data were weighted to avoid any problems stemming from the disproportionately low number of men responding.

Today, for all disciplines, women earn about 64% of associate degrees, 58% of bachelor's, 58% of master's, 47% of Ph.D.s, and 47% of first professional degrees. Thirty years ago, these percentages were 46%, 45%, 46%, 23%, and 16%, respectively.

More than half, 53%, of 2003 and 2004 Ph.D. physics graduates were foreign citizens. This compares with 33% of 2004 Ph.D. chemistry graduates.

Employment Status. The period between late 2004 and early 2005 was not a great time for U.S. employment in general. Nonfarm payrolls were only belatedly struggling back to the peak they set just before the quite mild economic recession in 2001. Of special importance to chemists, jobs in manufacturing were sharply down and declining.

In 2004, 38% of Ph.D. chemistry graduates found full-time permanent employment. This was down from 45% in 2000, the last really strong employment year for chemists. For bachelor's graduates, the parallel dip was from 35% to 25%. Also in 2004, 52% of Ph.D. chemistry graduates took postdoc positions, up from 41% in 2000, and 49% of bachelor's chemistry graduates entered graduate or professional school.

Ph.D. physics graduates showed a similar, if more sharply defined, pattern. In 2004, only 25% of respondents reported that they had found potentially permanent full-time employment. This number was down from near-50% of graduates from the 1996 through 2000 classes. To balance this shift, a record 67% of 2004 physics Ph.D. graduates took postdoc positions. This was up from about 44% of the 1996 through 2000 classes.

At the bachelor's level, 38% of 2004 physics graduates entered the workforce, up from 34% the year earlier but still well down from the 50% in 2000. In 2004, 57% of physics bachelor's graduates entered graduate study.

At the bachelor's level, physics graduates, as a group, are more committed to their science than are chemistry graduates. Only 39% of 2004 chemistry bachelor's graduates entering graduate school stayed with chemistry. Another 20% opted for another science, 2% chose engineering, and 29% entered medical or dental school. Of physics bachelor's, 64% stayed with physics or astronomy and 14% chose engineering. Very few switched to medicine or dentistry.

Salaries. ACS and AIP slice their "salamis" of salary data somewhat differently. For instance, in its 2004 report, AIP focuses on the salary range of the middle 50% of graduates by reporting on salaries at the 25th and 75th percentiles. For ACS, the primary focus is on the median: the salary that is matched or exceeded by 50% of respondents.

ACS also puts emphasis on salaries of inexperienced graduates, those with less than one year of technical work experience prior to graduation. This approach reflects the fact that a fair percentage of chemistry graduates have worked for some time before graduation and so tend to have elevated salaries. AIP's salary data for new bachelor's graduates are true starting salaries as well, excluding th0se in jobs held before graduation.

The median salary for 2004 physics bachelor's graduates with science-related jobs in the private sector was $43,500. This compares with $38,000 for chemistry graduates with jobs in manufacturing and $30,700 for those in nonmanufacturing. The median salary for physics bachelor's who took nonscience-related jobs in the private sector was a modest $25,000.

At the master's level, the $58,300 median for physicists with jobs in the private sector-almost all science-related-exceeded the $50,000 and $45,000 medians for chemists with manufacturing and nonmanufacturing jobs. For Ph.D. graduates, the parallel comparison was between medians of $80,000 for physicists and $75,000 and $72,500 for chemists.

Satisfaction. Physics bachelor's graduates in 2004 were singularly happy about physics. About 95% of those starting graduate study of physics indicated that if they had to do it over, they would still study physics or astronomy. This level dropped only to about 83% for graduates either starting graduate school in other fields or working at permanent jobs. It was still a positive 72% for unemployed graduates.

Of the 2004 Ph.D. physics graduates with potentially permanent jobs, 82% were satisfied with their positions, 76% indicated that their jobs used their physics knowledge, and 74% found their jobs professionally challenging. Graduates taking up postdoc positions were even more positive about their situations, posting responses of 82%, 91%, and 86%, respectively.

New Ph.D. chemistry graduates were also generally happy with their lot in 2004. Of those who entered the workforce, more than 90% believed their job was related to their field, 85% found it commensurate with their training, and 80% thought it challenging. A lower percentage, 64%, agreed that their job was what they expected when they began their studies.

Results. This comparison of new chemistry and physics graduates generates no surprises. It is in line with chemistry being the most industry-oriented of the basic sciences. The chemical industry employs a lot of graduates, but there is no physics equivalent of the chemical industry, even though knowledge and application of physics is essential for the economy.

Similarly, it is not a surprise that bachelor's physics graduates are more likely to pursue graduate study of physics than are chemistry bachelor's to further pursue chemistry. A chemistry bachelor's degree is more of a stepping stone into other fields, such as the life sciences or medicine, than is a physics bachelor's. This detail may be interpreted as providing some support for chemists' long-standing, if not particularly well-quantified, claim that their science is the central science.


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